Wooden Boat

Aircraft-Building Techniques Spur Comeback For Wooden Boats

Modern aircraft-building techniques are helping to bring wooden boats back into fashion.

Detroit, led by legendary boat builder Chris Craft, was the epicenter in the 1920s and 1930s for much of the wooden powerboat business. The industry was helped by Prohibition and the Great Lakes’ vast shared shoreline with Canada—a smuggler’s paradise, according to Michigan historian Bud Matthews. The Les Cheneaux Islands in the northern part of the state, now home to one of the nation’s premier annual wooden boat shows, became a summer playground for gamblers, Detroit’s notorious “Purple Gang” of bootleggers and hijackers, and Michigan’s leading families of the day.

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But wooden boats presented challenges. Their hulls needed to soak up water after initial launch each season so that their boards could swell, expand, and seal; the boats also had to be kept out of sunlight as much as possible to prevent rot. So northern Michigan’s stately cottages needed matching boathouses, and the boats required rigorous maintenance. Fiberglass-constructed vessels that came onto the scene in the late 1950s were cheaper to build and required far less care. No wonder then that wooden boats became consigned to the ash heap.

But that may be changing. While wooden boats will never be as inexpensive to buy as fiberglass ones, new construction techniques and finishes are making their maintenance far less odious. In Boyne City, Michigan, Van Dam Wooden Boats builds various customer-dictated designs, from sailboats to power racing boats to luxury cruisers. Wood offers a richer finished look and a better strength-to-weight ratio than fiberglass or metal, says sales manager Jeremy Pearson.

Van Dam applies layering and diagonal strengthening processes—in wooden boat building called cold molding—and computer-numeric-control milling machines that are also used to make airplanes from carbon-fiber composites. Pearson says this provides for superior durability. The cold molding and a new-generation epoxy eliminate soak time, and thanks to new automotive-style clear-coat finishes, customers no longer need to keep the crafts in boathouses or on curtained lifts. “Some of our boats are out in the elements year-round,” Pearson notes.